9 ways racism impacts maternal health


As we celebrate our moms and mommies this Mother’s Day, let us not forget that for some, motherhood is not an enjoyed privilege. For many Black, Indigenous and racialized women in Turtle Island (North America) and globally — motherhood is a fight for life.

The struggle for our maternal health and motherhood includes daily resistance against anti-Black racism, anti-indigeneity, sexism, classism and other forms of intersectional violence.

The health of Black pregnant women and mothers is a key issue being debated in the United States presidential 2020 campaigns especially by Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Recently, Harris introduced a resolution to raise awareness of the disproportionately high rates of pregnancy-related deaths among Black women.

Professional tennis player Serena Williams’ recent maternal health crisis demonstrated that Black women’s reproductive health can be jeopardized, suspect, dismissed and at risk of demise even for the very talented, wealthy and well-known.

In the United States, Black pregnant women are three to four times more likely to die from complications compared to their white counterparts. Shutterstock

The historical exploitation of Black and Indigenous women through forced sterilization, rape, medical experimentation and other forms of torture through scientific racism, African enslavement and Indigenous genocide directly impacts maternal health outcomes today.

Violence is a continuum


Health indicator statistics of Indigenous communities report increasing disparities between Indigenous and settler populations. Systemic racism affects Indigenous population’s health in various ways, this includes limited healthy food choices, inadequate living conditions and substandard health care. The infant mortality rate within Indigenous communities is almost 12 times that of settler communities.

The statistics, usually presented by state authorities, come without context or consideration to the broad range of causes — one of which is the continued exposure to state violence on a daily basis.

This conversation is critical as we face recent fiscal cuts locally and globally to public health, education and anti-racism programs.

The World Health Organization defines maternal health as:

“…the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. While motherhood is often a positive and fulfilling experience, for too many women it is associated with suffering, ill-health and even death.”

Redefining maternal health is the goal of this conversation. We need to question our perceived notions of the “good mother,” supported through her pregnancy, encouraged to reproduce, usually identified as white, middle class and heterosexual. And we must question our ideas of the “bad mother” — generally not supported through her pregnancy, sometimes even discouraged to reproduce, usually identified as African/Black, Indigenous, racialized and poor.

I briefly examine nine ways colonialism impedes maternal health using an integrated anti-oppression approach. I also look at some ways that we might resist these historical patterns.